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JazzMonthly: The term smooth jazz has a negative connotation to some, even many people in the industry who work with artists who have been labeled under that format branding. What do you think of it? Do you think it’s an accurate description for the music it signifies?

DS: I never understood what exactly the term meant from the beginning. It didn’t make sense to me and I never figured out what is and isn’t smooth jazz. To me, at its worst, the term refers to music that is divested of being interesting or having much drama, or is just bland and safe-the stuff you listen to when someone puts you on hold. When I started doing what I do, that term didn’t exist, but later people kept applying it to me and I felt it was inappropriate. I’ve always fought against categorizing music, and my music obviously is influenced by jazz, R&B and other genres. If you think about it, the most interesting music is that which transcends boundaries. Ray Charles mixed gospel and jazz, James Brown’s revolutionary sound was hard to peg simply so they called it funk. A lot of it is about purists having their say. When I was growing up people said Cannonball Adderley was a sell out because his music was too commercial. But I loved it. Categories tend to be exclusionary, whether someone champions or rejects them.

JazzMonthly:  Along those lines…earlier this year, I met a guy at a straight ahead gig who had just been on Michael Lazaroff’s straight ahead cruise. I told him I had been on the smooth cruise and was a fan of both kinds of jazz. Like any jazz snob, he told me that if I liked David Sanborn, there’s no way I could appreciate Thelonious Monk. Why do you think people are so black and white when it comes to appreciating different kinds of jazz? How would you have responded if you were me?

DS: They obviously have deeper problems and this was an ignorant thing to say. You have to remember, these are just opinions. When people do polls, like who is the best trumpet player, what standard is this based on? What is jazz and who has the right to call their music that? Most of the musicians I know don’t care about that stuff. Either the music is good and it works or it doesn’t. People slammed Miles Davis and called his music lame and safe and said he was no Clifford Brown. But now everyone reveres him and his legend is secure. Marcus is on the Smooth Jazz Cruise and Miles loved him. Marcus was his go to guy. What I care more about is the respect of my peers and the appreciation I get from fans that do connect with my music. The great Sonny Rollins liked the way I play, so I don’t care much about some guy at a gig pontificating to you about what is and isn’t jazz. If that kind of thing stopped me, I would never have left St. Louis. As artists, we have to have thick skin and do what our hearts tell us to do—and have the courage to say this is what I believe. 

JazzMonthly: What have you enjoyed most about your career? Where have you enjoyed traveling the most?

DS: I’m grateful that I got to do so many different things and play in so many unique situations—and am especially pleased that I had that chance to host the “Night Music” late night TV show and showcase some of my musical heroes on TV. That program reflected my philosophy about the magic that happens when musicians of diverse backgrounds come together to make music that is somehow coherent and emotionally resonant. When I’m not touring the U.S. I love to play in Asia, especially Japan. The fans are so great and loyal there. I also enjoy a lot of places in Europe. Every city has its charm.

JazzMonthly: Why do you think you have been so successful for nearly 40 years as an artist? What keeps fans interested and what makes them keep coming back to support your latest recordings and concerts?

DS: I wish I knew!.Whatever it is I’m grateful for it. I just try to get up there and tell the truth as I know it at that time in my life, whatever the changing context of the time, the collaborators or the specific style. People relate to the fact that I’m always looking for the most truthful moment. But if I thought about the mystery of why I’ve been able to do this for this long, I might start freaking out.

JazzMonthly: I remember reading that you had polio as a kid and you started playing the sax on a doctor’s advice to strengthen your weakened chest muscles and improve your breathing. Once you realized you had the gift, when did it hit you that this might be something you could do as your career someday?

DS: There was no real “a-ha” moment, just a gradual realization that I had no passion for anything else but music. I felt like I needed it to live, and it became a necessity, not just a career choice. I was willing to go through whatever I had to go through to see it through. I had no indication early on that it would ever amount to anything, and as I said before, no grand vision on how to make it happen. But looking back, and especially since listening to the songs on the new anthology, the fact that I’ve been able to make a living doing what I love for so long is something like a miracle. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but it’s always going to come from my willingness to have an open mind and ears.